Historically speaking

Williamson family of Negaunee

T. George Williamson is pictured. (Negaunee Historical Society photo)

NEGAUNEE — During the 1880s, Thomas Willaimson came to Negaunee and was engaged in business with William Neely, having purchased the Johnson Sawmill on Teal Lake.

The family made their home in the Teal Lake Location, later moving to a home at 315 E. Main Street.

Thomas Williamson was considered to be one of the best informed men in the lumber business in the Upper Peninsula. He had been involved in the mill and lumber business from his youth.

Thomas’s father operated a shingle mill in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Thomas Williamson survived the Great Peshtigo fire. I have included in this article information gleaned from an article, “Reduced to Ashes: Williamsonville, Wisconsin” written by Christopher Barney.

Nine months and five days. That was the lifespan of the Williamsville post office in Door County, Wisconsin. The sudden closing was tragic and heartbreaking. The two year old hamlet of Williamsonville was in the path of a deadly forest fire, the Peshtigo/Door Peninsula fire of 1871.

The Williamson family had moved to Door County from Oshkosh around 1869 and bought land in and around Gardner township. for the purpose of constructing a shingle mill and harvesting the timber. By 1870, besides the mill they had constructed a boarding house and eight houses. Additional improvements included a barn, a general store, a potato patch, two wells and a blacksmith shop.

Land purchases were 600 acres. In 1870 they applied to the Post Office department to establish a post office. Initially called Williamson’s Mill.

It was evident that the Willamson’s were there to stay. The Williamson family consisted of John Sr. and his wife Margaret, sons John Jr., Thomas, James, and Fred, daughter Maggie, niece Maggie O’Neil and the wives of John and James and John’s baby. The summer and fall were dry and small forest fires sparked up in several areas.

On Oct. 8, 1871, a “cyclonic” low pressure system moved into Wisconsin. Thomas Williamson, 26 had been pouring water onto small fires but the wind began to more than 50 miles an hour and the cloud exploded in long sheets of fire setting everything ablaze, the houses, store, barn and mill.

Thomas ran through the fire and found a small square of land and laid there face down, while the fire scorched his back and burned his feet and trees fell around him. He fell unconscious. When he woke up the smoke and flame had cleared away. He called for help and was given water from a well where a young man and girl lay dead at the bottom.

He was so parched he didn’t care. There were a few survivors including Margaret, his mother. She asked him if he had seen any of the family members and he set out to find them. He walked past many dead bodies not recognizing them due to their condition.

He came across his dead brother and upon telling his mother she asked to be taken away from the hellish environment. They found two horses that were alive and he put his mother on one and led his mother up the road.

The entire village was leveled and 59 of its 76 residents died in the fire. Nine members of the Williamson family perished in the fire. Williamsonville was never rebuilt. Thomas and his mother moved to Oshkosh wher Margaret died at age 75.

Thomas Williamson teetered on the brink of death and despite his grief pulled himself up by his bootstraps and crafted a new and fulfilling life from the ashes of Williamsonville. Thomas sold off the parcels of land.

He married the former Viola Neely in 1874. They left Oshkosh and relocated to Negaunee and with his brother in law William Neely they operated the Johnson Sawmill.

Thomas died in 1915. Viola died in 1921. Surviving them were two sons and two daughters. Margaret Bell, Viola Williamson (Sister Frances Clare, an Episcopal nun) George Williamson and John B. Williamson.

John carried on his father’s tradition and founded the Independent Lumber and Fuel Company in Negaunee and was in business for 45 years, retiring in 1953. John served on the Negaunee School Board.

The highlight of his period was the building of the Central Grade School. John had one daughter, Margaret, married to Arie Loy, who also operated the Independent Lumber and Fuel Co.

Three grandchildren, Peggy, John and Michael. T. George Williamson, grandson of Thomas was employed by Negaunee Public Schools as business manager and his wife Ardes also was employed by Negaunee Public Schools teaching english and math.

They had two children, a daughter Kay and a son John.


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